Art Psychotherapy Explained

The need for the arts is a defining human characteristic. They endure because they have a unique power to help us to feel and make sense of our experiences. However, where there is psychological vulnerability this innate power may be compromised, displaced, obscured or temporarily lost. The arts therapies professions have spent over sixty years developing practice, theory and research to understand therapeutic potential of the arts in the care environment. They also have extensive experience in managing potential risks and developing safe practice with their clients. All arts therapists are dual trained in both their specified art form and in psychological therapy. The arts therapies can be defined as being committed to understanding and utilising the therapeutic potentials of both psychological therapy approaches and the art form employed. In bringing together the aesthetic and psychological domains, the resulting practice is unique.

In art psychotherapy part of the psychotherapeutic process is to awaken the creative life force energy, thus creativity and therapy overlap, and what is creative is frequently therapeutic. It is a process of discovering ourselves that comes from any creative expression that emerges from an emotional depth, be it the visual arts such as painting, writing, music or improvisation, undertaken in a supportive setting to facilitate growth and healing. However it is not about creating an aesthetic or pretty picture, a poem honed to perfection or developing a harmonic melody of a song. Nor is Art Psychotherapy devoid of words or talking about feelings, experiences and the process of working through them. It is integrative and uses all forms of creativity and self expression as well as colour, form and symbols which become additional languages that speak from the unconscious and have particular meanings and significance to the individual. This inclusive and highly personal language can then be used to develop self knowledge but also the relationship and therapeutic alliance between client and therapist to deepen understanding and provide a healing process.

The relationship between the therapist and the client is of central importance, but art therapy differs from other psychological therapies in that it is a three way process between the client, the therapist and the image or artefact created. Thus it offers an additional opportunity for expression and communication and can be particularly helpful to people who find it hard to express their thoughts and feelings verbally, for those who have a tendency to over intellectualise and have lost touch with their feelings, for people who have become blocked, or trapped by their thoughts and/or actions and those for whom words are inadequate or incomparable with their pain or situation. Many vulnerable or distressed people find they can harness the arts when other interventions are not possible. The arts used are not just a vehicle for a talking cure, but with the correct facilitation, the experience of the arts can act as a processing resource. In the hands of a skilled arts therapist, the artistic medium can be safe, containing and enable forms of communications where words are not enough.

In most art therapy sessions, the focus is on your inner experience—your feelings, perceptions, and imagination. While art therapy may involve learning skills or art techniques, the emphasis is generally first on developing and expressing images that come from inside the person, rather than those he or she sees in the outside world. And while some traditional art classes may ask you to paint or draw from your imagination, in art therapy, your inner world of images, feelings, thoughts, and ideas are always of primary importance to the experience. The other important aspect is the attendance of the individual to his or her own personal process of making art and to giving the art product personal meaning—i.e., finding a story, description, or meaning for the art. Very few therapies depend as much on the active participation of the individual. In art therapy, the art therapist facilitates the person's exploration of both materials and narratives about art products created during a session.

Art Therapy is recognised as an intervention that facilitates the expression of mind-body-based connectivity through the remediation of acute and chronic traumatic stress. Mind-body-based interventions are also characteristic of health psychology, medical arts, sports psychology and shamanic practices. Most mind-body approaches are intra-personally orientated in that they focus on the remediation of stress and restoring a sympathetic-parasympathetic balance by teaching clients experiential practices. Art therapy differs in that it includes expressive and relational foci. At the same time that art therapists assist clients in reducing the effects of stressors, they also encourage self expression and promote a sense of intra/interpersonal connectivity through the therapeutic relationship. The advantages are that the clients gain more support for generalising in the outside world what they have experienced in session.